Burnshaw, Stanley 1906–
Burnshaw is an American poet, novelist, critic, and essayist. The Seamless Web is his best known work, a critical manifesto which James Dickey termed "the most exciting, releasing book on the nature of poetry since Biographia Literaria." (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
"Although everyone knows that humanity is only one strand in the web of creation, one can rarely speak about man's condition as a creature without eliciting defensiveness and confusion." It is to man's condition as a creature, his need and indeed drive to regain his primary organic unity with the rest of creation, that Stanley Burnshaw's title [The Seamless Web] refers. It is to that particular drive that he connects the work of the artist—all artists, but more particularly the poet, whom Stanley Burnshaw considers to be the archetype of the artist. And it is to an elucidation of the nature of the poet's activity that The Seamless Web addresses itself…. In [Burnshaw's] investigation he considers a wide variety of approaches to art: Freud and the various brands of psychoanalysis; structuralism and the "new critics," exploring the limits of their approach with great clarity and intellectual precision. The discretion with which he uses his vast knowledge is a measure of his mastery over it….
Besides being himself a poet, willing dispassionately to examine his own activity as poet, Burnshaw is a man with a wide knowledge of his fellow craftsmen, past and present, writing in different languages from within different cultures…. But, beyond the whole range of testimony concerning the creative act gathered from the artists themselves, the volume brings to the reader a wealth of examples, a rich harvest of verse in an analytic context that illuminates and appeals simultaneously to the reader's imagination and understanding. Stanley Burnshaw is a man who can range far and wide in the world of poetry itself, a critic with an acute sense of the precise techniques and the imponderables that make up the poet's craft and of the many traps his use of words will set a reader bent on some single explanation of a poet's meaning. He is as nondogmatic in his approach to poetry as he is unpedantic in the formulation of his ideas. (p. 522)
The book progresses with great honesty and thoughtfulness, opening up new avenues for speculation along the way. The poet is always present, throughout the book, which is most certainly, as Hiram Haydn has said, a "pivotal book," and a much needed book, which may well influence the general approach to literature, and perhaps, to some degree, the poets' own understanding of their art. It requires careful reading if one is to come to grips with the "common and uncommon" sense it makes, with Burnshaw's deep concern with the human sensibility and his unerring aesthetic sense. (p. 524)
Germaine Brée, "'The Poet Is Always Present'," in The American Scholar (copyright © 1970 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 39, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 522, 524.
[In The Seamless Web , Mr. Burnshaw] tries to show how mankind, in replacing biological evolution which was imperceptibly slow with cultural progress which is massive and speedy, lost its at-oneness with nature, its seamlessness with living things, to suffer thereafter the dichotomy between the so-called "higher" centres of the brain and the "lower" areas of motor action and instinctive response. None of this sounds very new or greatly in need of further clarification, you might say. Yet much of the first part of Mr. Burnshaw's argument is to show how it is the...
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cultural, linguistic structuring of the higher centres that compel us to trust in the truth of this split and to make so often the derogatory distinction between primitive qualities and those we call civilised. In fact, he spends a long section on showing that the split is not so certain, nor so complete as the cultured structuring of our thoughtways would have us believe. (p. 33)
The book now proceeds to investigate the creation of works of art. And here Mr. Burnshaw's experience as a poet helps him to give one of the clearest expositions of the creative trace that I have yet read. He intends to show how the "higher" centres which so often consider themselves in charge of the creative process are in fact nudged and directed almost without their knowledge and certainly without their consent all along the line even when it comes to revision, rightly called re-vision here…. (p. 34)
Mr. Burnshaw now turns his mind to consider the thing made by the creative process, concentrating again on poems. This section is the most directly useful to the reader or writer dismayed by the range of science in the first parts. It contains some of the wisest and clearest things ever said about prosody, syntax, language and sound as used in a poem. He does not, like an academic, come to poetry with his ideas over his eyes and select only those samples which suit his case but takes a wide range of works rather like the mythical general reader and considers what differences or samenesses they reveal.
The "poem" is then shown to consist of an amalgam of syntaxes from different levels of use, conscious, unconscious, rational, informative, questioning, common, unique and so on. What all the poets do is to blend such various strata of language into the union of a poem—each being unique in its blending. Rhythm and sound cannot be separated from syntax and meaning; unique beyond metrical naming, the rhythmic language-area of the poem cannot be distinguished from its meaning. The whole union acts on the reader as a respondent body.
Where so many previous theorists have concentrated on what a poem is or means and have sought sketchily embracing generalisations for their chosen samplings, Mr. Burnshaw concentrates on what a poem does…. (p. 36)
The importance of his book is manifold: it cuts through much of the oversophistication of the critics and gives the poem back as of right to readers; catholic itself, it encourages a greater openness in readers and critics to the way a poem works, the multiple unions of different types of meaning, resonance and response it can create. It states clearly some of the most overlooked truisms about the nature of writing and reading; while emphasising bodily wisdom it does not deny the mind, while emphasising individual responsiveness, it does not set aside the culture or tradition. It is a book that shows creation as a magnificent compromise; it is the best way to understand most and more of what Coleridge meant when he defined a poem, or described it, in his famous pairings.
But what makes it most valuable is that the book itself is a creative experience. It is written with considered passion and it reads with excitement, an excitement for me only paralleled by such books as Collingwood's Principles. (p. 38)
Peter Dale, in Agenda, Autumn, 1974.
[Stanley Burnshaw] calls Mirages a public poem, and thereby indirectly explains one reason why it is so enormously moving. The poetry-reading public has had its fill of the confessionals, who treat their psyches as though each were a complete universe. Mirages is about something vaster and deeper than one sensibility. It is a series of meditations and conversations about the fact and mystery of Israel—the modern nation, with all its hustle and bustle, interwoven with the external land of Canaan and the strong destiny of those who have inhabited it at various times. To read the book is like seeing one transparent slide superimposed upon another, and then another and another….
The poem is written in a free verse that could easily slip into outright prose, but almost never does; Stanley Burnshaw's control is very exact. At times the verse rises to a biblical eloquence, at other times it is quiet and unobtrusive. Perhaps the main poem is the land of Canaan itself, and the verse is a series of footnotes on that reality, ancient and contemporary. In any case, this book makes much contemporary poetry seem—how can one express it?—trivial or self-indulgent. (p. E4)
Chad Walsh, in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), May 22, 1977.
Mr. Burnshaw is a courageous man but even he, I imagine, would not have wanted the slogan "A Public Poem" printed so largely as his publisher seems to have decided. And yet he would be mistaken, for what makes [Mirages] so interesting and important is precisely that it is public in a way that poems have not been for decades. The poem concerns the Israeli-Arab problem in all its complexity. Mr. Burnshaw brings to it a complexity of his own which gives him the authority to speak. His own culture is deeply American-European as can be seen from his translation-work in The Poem Itself and his The Seamless Web, not to mention his earlier poems. But The … Web is underwritten with the Paradisal myth of man united with his natural world, and the poems return to the legend of Abraham sacrificing Isaac as does part of this work. In addition he has powerful biographical factors which enable him to feel deeply the confused issues of the middle East…. For this reason he has the right to speak publicly on these matters and he has the ear and the intelligence to do so in verse that is cumulatively compelling.
The poem stems from, and deals with, a visit that he made to the sacred and historical places in Israel and from his reaction to the people he met. And because it deals with an issue to which verse can provide no instant answer much of the tone is elegiac. (p. 142)
The poem concludes with a humanism that asks not "Who am I?" but "What am I?" and suggests the recognition of the body as our limit—an idea that underlies The Seamless Web. It is, as the poet knows, an utopian idea and not likely to be tried by numbers, on any side, sufficient to solve any problems.
What is impressive about this poem is its general accessibility to the unliterary; its resolute desire not to call attention to itself as a poem. It is, in fact, a triumph of tone. Many of the ideas and attitudes contained in the poem will not command general assent from all parties but one can consider them because they are presented in such a convincing tone of passionate sincerity. I would myself have liked to have felt that I understood the versification with its strange line-ends and variable line-lengths but in the end, this is a small criticism of such a courageous piece of work. (p. 146)
Peter Dale, "Going Public," in Agenda, Summer-Autumn, 1977, pp. 142-46.